Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant Unilever produces 400 brands in 14 categories of food, home and personal care products. It operates in nearly 100 countries, has 365 manufacturing sites, and employs more than 220,000 people.

Global CIO Neil Cameron says the IT operation has a number of themes it will be concentrating on over the next two years. The first is the IT architecture.

“We have created clarity on the IT ecosystem and have made choices on strategic partners like SAP and Microsoft. We will now be driving value from those relationships.”

Cameron explains that now there are fewer, bigger players, especially in the software market, so there are fewer choices to make, but clearly they are very important. “In the past you could choose best of breed products, but now the choices you make dictate the ecosystem of smaller players under them. You have to be sure that you can drive value from the relationships you have with the whole ecosystem.”

The company will be completing the convergence programme that it began two years ago, when it took a careful look at strategy, regrouped, and focused on growth. One Unilever was the company’s plan to cut 700 million from costs through streamlining and simplification by this year.

For example, in Europe there used to be two systems for Food and Personal Systems, but now the organisation operates as one, not as a series of federations, according to Cameron. IT is now closely aligned to the business both globally and regionally, and business processes and information have to run as a single entity, as part of One Unilever. “We have worked very hard over the last two years to get the basics right,” says Cameron. “The success of the systems convergence programme means we are now using the things we invested in and have achieved ‘One Unilever’. This has meant company-wide changes and the IT organisation has changed significantly too. We will be driving efficiencies and implementing programmes to unify the businesses geographically.”

Cameron will also be closely focused on making the outsourcing deals struck in the last year work. For example, the regional deal Unilever struck is for a seven-year contract with IBM to outsource financial transactional services.

The contract covers more than 20 European countries and is part of the One Unilever streamlining programme. IBM will provide financial services including general accounting from its centres in Portugal, Poland and India.

As a result of outsourcing the IT organisation will be creating a new career framework for the people it has retained. “We will be looking to motivate them, to help them consider the changing nature of IT and to look at changes in the way we work with IT now,” Cameron says.

Part of this change involves using technology innovations such as collaborative working, mobility and two-way communications, which are all high on the agenda for the next couple of years. Cameron says the company is looking at information and back to business programmes centred around its global customers, for example Wal-Mart, and also at improving customer centred systems at regional and local levels for customers like Sainsbury, which only have a local presence.

“Business and technology innovations that provide things like improvements in our supply chain, reductions in cost, and speeding up customer response times are fundamentally changing our business,” says Cameron.
Cameron will also be looking at the next phase of significant enterprise systems and evaluating opportunities in areas like product lifecycle management. It will also be working hard with the business to extract value from any previous developments.

On the other side of the business, IT continues to support Unilever’s scientific research and product innovation. “We are supporting product R&D from an IT perspective,” says Cameron. “It is very interesting and challenging working with the scientists and trying to add something. The process goes the whole way from research and innovation concepts all the way through to product launch. Trying to get the balance right is important and the support comes from IT.”

He adds: “We are working very hard at innovation and science at the molecular level, for example V-shots have to taste of something, and there are huge scientific issues. We are doing some grid computing work on this, but frankly some of the scientists we have are much better at doing this than we are.”

“We have created clarity on the IT ecosystem and have made choices of strategic partners like SAP and Microsoft. We will be driving value from those relationships”
– Neil Cameron, global CIO, Unilever